Why the West Rules, for Now

Ian Morris on the patterns of history, and what they reveal about the future.

Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847), by William Dyce.

If you’re worried that the emergence of China and India as economic powers marks the beginning of the end of the West as a superpower, you’ve got good reason to be concerned. History tells us that the decline of the West is all but inevitable, a point driven home in Ian Morris’ new book “Why the West Rules—for Now” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which explains in great detail why the West has been dominant, and predicts what the next hundred years will bring. In the following exchange, Morris—a historian and archaeologist who teaches at Stanford University—discusses some of the themes of his work, and why some societies succeed and others fail.

What did you set out to accomplish in “Why the West Rules—for Now”?
I tried to explain why a small group of nations around the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean have come to dominate the world in a way that’s never been seen before. There have been a number of theories about why the West rules that haven’t taken account of all the details of recent history. I combine the grand-scale analysis of an anthropologist with the detailed approach of a historian.

Your book draws from numerous disciplines ranging from biology to climate science. Why?
To explain why the West rules one needs to draw on a range of modern academic disciplines, everything from geology and genetics to history and literary criticism. Each explains a little part of the story, and together they give us the whole picture. Over the last hundred years or so, academics have deepened our knowledge of these particular fields. The challenge is to bring them together into one big picture.

In order to compare East and West, you developed your own system of quantifying social development.
In the last 30 years there’s been a great turn against using quantitative methods to understand broad patterns of social development. In some ways, that’s justified. But some questions call out for a numerical approach—measuring social development in different parts of the world and seeing how it has unfolded across the very long term.

How did you develop your system?
I took my inspiration from the U.N.’s Human Development Index, which ranks how well states provide conditions for people to realize their innate potential. To measure social development one needs to measure the ability of societies to capture energy, their ability to organize themselves, their ability to manage information, their technologies for information gathering, and their capacity for making war.

Throughout history, cultures have hit ceilings in social development, and have occasionally gone backwards. Recently, however, social development in the East and West has been rising at an unprecedented rate.
Much of the change has been driven by breakthroughs in technology, including genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. One of the great questions is: where is this leading? Will social development continue at this rate, or will something stop it? On previous occasions it has tended to generate the very forces that have undermined it. We can see some of the same things going on at the moment: great forces of disruption—including global warming—are threatening social development.

In the book you identify patterns that have recurred and driven change. Talk about the “advantages of backwardness.”
Throughout history, when we’ve seen social development rise very quickly, it’s always been driven by great innovation, like the beginnings of agriculture, or the rise of cities and states, or the Industrial Revolution. On each of these occasions, one part of the world was the first to develop new techniques of organizing society, and as it did so it captured more energy: Wealth, power, and military might became concentrated in the new centers, populations grew, and the new centers expanded. And as cities, states, and industry spread, they entered new geographical niches where the old ways of doing things didn’t always work. People on these frontiers were forced to tinker, to make old techniques work in new—and eventually better—ways.

The best example might be in the origins of agriculture: Seven-thousand years ago, farming first developed in the hilly lands around the edges of what we now call Iraq. When farmers moved down to the plains of modern Iraq, they found that to make farming work, they had to develop irrigation agriculture.

We saw the same thing happen again with the spread of industry in the 19th century. Industry was invented in the British Isles, but as it spread outward into Germany and North America, people in these places had to create new ways of making industry work successfully. As they did so, Germany and the United States began to replace the British Isles as the center of industry. And we see the same process continuing to work in our own day. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen the meteoric rise of China. We should expect the “advantages of backwardness” to continue being one of the major motors in world history.

What about the “paradox of development”?
As I said, social development tends to generate the very forces that undermine it. For instance, the first hunter-gatherers discovered that as they became more successful, their population grew and they could no longer feed themselves. They were driven to adopt farming. As they became more successful farmers, they again couldn’t feed themselves and were driven to organize themselves into cities. As their cities grew, they were driven to create larger states and empires to dominate their neighbors. And as states and empires grew, they ran up against the limits of ecology. Now we’re poisoning the planet and it’s no longer possible for us to continue down the same path.

On each of these occasions, we’ve seen the same five great threats to development, which I call the “five horsemen of the apocalypse.” We see famine, the failure of states, uncontrolled migration, epidemic disease, and great changes in climate. During each of these transitions in the past, people had to find ways to manage these threats. The difference is that these threats are now operating on a global scale, and our solutions are going to have to be global.

Going forward what do you see as the biggest factors in terms of pushing change?
Three things: biology, sociology, and geography. Our biology determines what we as humans do; we tinker with things and make new inventions. That’s what has driven social development throughout history, that’s what will continue to drive it in the 21st century. Our sociology determines how well we’re able to organize ourselves to cope with these changes. And geography accounts for why societies in different parts of the world react to pressures and changes in different ways—why some succeed and some fail. In the 21st century though, the pace of change is so rapid that we may see the transformation of what sociology means, and even what our basic biology means.

What do you think the world will look like in a hundred years?
Most of the predictions see the world more or less like it is now, just bigger and shinier. People will live longer, they’ll be richer, but otherwise things will be more or less the same.

I think there are two main ways that the world might develop: one of them is what I call the “Nightfall” model, taking that title from the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who published a story about a planet which has multiple suns and only knows nightfall every few thousand years when the moons line up just right to block out all the suns. People have never seen this before, go insane with fear, burn their civilization and throw everything back to square one. That’s one possible outcome in the 21st century. We have weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons, and there’s the possibility we’ll destroy the entire planet.

The other alternative is what I call the Singularity model. Singularity is a word that futurists sometimes use to describe a state of affairs where technological change is so rapid that it appears to be almost instantaneous. Everything we think about the world could cease to be relevant, and the planet could change in every way. I think this is going to be the great race in the 21st century, between these two possible outcomes.

Will the West continue to rule? What does history predict?
The great lesson of history is that nothing lasts forever. Many people worry that the West is about to lose its global supremacy. But this is what always happens. Western dominance, like the dominance of all regions, is something that has a time limit. The same forces of change that undermined the dominance of other parts of the world in previous periods are going to undermine western dominance too. A hundred and fifty years ago Britain dominated the world, but geography undermined that. Japan and China have now discovered advantages in their geography, which are allowing them to overtake the United States. One thing we can be sure of is that a hundred years from now the West will no longer dominate the planet.